Friday, 15 October 2010


by John Barth

Note: This piece is simultaneously a microfiction and the longest story in existence. It is, in fact, an infinite story; and it is one of the clearest examples of John Barth's conceptual debt to Jorge Luis Borges. It can be found in Barth's excellent short story collection, Lost in the Funhouse: Fiction for Print, Tape, Live Voice (1968)

John Barth (1930-) is an American writer most famous for vast postmodern epics such as The Sot-Weed Factor and Giles Goat-Boy, although he is also adept at much shorter lengths. His incredible range of prose styles, deep philosophical insights, enormous erudition, immense narrative skill and restless originality have earned him a place at the very apex of the highest summit of World Literature. His epistolary book LETTERS is possibly the most complex novel ever written.

Tuesday, 27 July 2010

The Tail of the Sphinx

by Ambrose Bierce

A dog of a taciturn disposition said to his Tail:

"Whenever I am angry you rise and bristle; when I am pleased you wag; when I am alarmed you tuck yourself in out of danger. You are too mercurial -- you disclose all my emotions. My notion is that tails are given to conceal thought. It is my dearest ambition to be as impassive as the Sphinx."

"My friend, you must recognise the laws and limitations of your being," replied the Tail, with flexions appropriate to the sentiments uttered, "and try to be great some other way. The Sphinx has one hundred and fifty qualifications for impassiveness which you lack."

"What are they?" the Dog asked.

"One hundred and forty-nine tons of sand on its tail."

"And --?"

"A stone tail."

Ambrose Gwinnett Bierce (1842–1914) was an American writer perhaps best known for his satirical lexicon, The Devil's Dictionary, which seeks to redfine common words on a mischievously cynical basis. His nihilism, best exemplified by his personal motto "Nothing Matters", was partly for show. He encouraged younger writers and his wit was often as wry as it was dark. Sometime in 1914, while reporting on the Mexican Revolution, he disappeared without trace.

Tuesday, 20 April 2010

The Grave Demeanour

by Rhys Hughes

When the man known as John Loop died he was buried in an old churchyard and his friends cut some flowers from his own garden to lay respectfully on his grave. The rains came and the dead flowers began to slowly rot.

The other flowers in the garden were stricken with grief at the loss of their friends. The murders of those seven daffodils had been blatant and cruel. The surviving flowers had no chance of getting revenge, but they wanted to express their sadness by making an appropriate gesture.

They waited until the first bumblebee of the year appeared and landed on the petals of the nearest flower. The moment it crawled inside the trumpet to look for pollen, that daffodil made a special effort and snapped shut around it, just like a Venus Flytrap, and kept squeezing tight until the bee suffocated.

It wasn't easy for the daffodil to uproot itself and walk all the way to the churchyard. Even the hardiest perennials find such activity exhausting and rarely indulge in it, so for a daffodil it was gruelling in the extreme. Eventually it arrived at the grave where the murdered flowers lay and it opened its trumpet and placed the dead bee on top.

Then it went back to the garden and replanted itself, satisfied that it had discharged its duty and employed the correct symbolism in doing so. Humans are mourned with flowers; flowers are mourned with bees. But the story doesn't end there.

The friends of the bumblebee were distraught when he didn't return to the hive and they went out to search for him. At long last his corpse was found in the churchyard. The other bees decided to hold his funeral the following day and adorn his grave with a freshly killed bear.

Shortly after the next sunrise they swarmed out and chased a bear over a cliff. Then they pushed its body to the churchyard and laid it on top of the bee. It was fatiguing work but worth it for the symbolic value of the huge hairy cadaver.

The friends of the bear wailed and wept for an entire week before fishing a salmon from the river and draping it over the dead bear's head. As for the friends of that salmon: once they heard the news they ganged up on a squid and ended its many-armed life. But how they managed to get it to the grave is still a mystery.

The friends of the squid decided to honour its passing with a dead albatross, so one of them reached up through the surface of the ocean and snatched a bird in flight and dragged it down and drowned it. The corpse of that albatross was later positioned with great reverence on top of the squid on top of the salmon on top of the bear on top of the bee on top of the flowers on top of the man John Loop.

A few days later, the friends of the albatross caused a small aeroplane to crash. The pilot bailed out in time but his craft plummeted into a hill. The birds dragged the wrecked plane to the churchyard and laid it gently on the grave. Then they flew away.

The friends of that aeroplane bombed a cathedral and piled the rubble on top of the smashed machine. Then the friends of the demolished cathedral all crossed a bridge at the same time and caused it to collapse with the weight. The broken bridge ended up on the grave on top of the bombed cathedral just as etiquette demands.

But the friends of the bridge responded to the loss of their friend by killing the east wind that was making their railings sing; and so the other winds killed a radio transmission that was passing through the atmosphere shortly afterwards; and the friends of that particular frequency sent an offensive message into space that would kill with shame the satellite that received it. And so on.

Months, years, centuries passed…

One day a robot found himself passing through the churchyard. He saw the tower of dead objects and his scientific curiosity was engaged. Extending his arms, he climbed to the summit and sat there with a dreamy look in his crystal eyes.

"This tower contains a single example of everything in the world and many things outside it," he said to himself, "with the exception of—"

Suddenly he lost his balance and toppled over the edge. He was so high that the Earth was only the size of an alien fruit below him. As he accelerated he dimly wondered what the juice of that fruit might taste like. The answer was oil and electrons. But that, in fact, was his own juice after he landed.

While he cooled in pieces beside the grave of John Loop, his friends brought a newly slaughtered human to lay on top of him…

Rhys Hughes (1966-?) His work is a fusion of precise logic, intricate plots, cunning wordplay, relentless invention and multilayered irony. His books include Worming the Harpy, The Smell of Telescopes, The Postmodern Mariner, Sangria in the Sangraal and The Brothel Creeper; with The Impossible Inferno, The Senile Pagodas, Bone Idle in the Charnel-House, Wuthering Depths and Fists of Fleece still to come.

Sunday, 11 April 2010


by Donald Barthelme

I put a name in an envelope, and sealed the envelope; and put that envelope in another envelope with a spittlebug and some quantity of boric acid; and put that envelope in a still larger envelope which contained also a woman tearing her gloves to tatters; and put that envelope in the mail to Fichtelgebirge. At the Fichtelgebirge Post Office I asked if there was mail for me, with a mysterious smile the clerk said, "Yes," I hurried with the envelope to London, arriving with snow, and put the envelope in the Victoria and Albert Museum, bowing to the curators in the Envelope Room, the wallpaper hanging down in thick strips. I put the Victoria and Albert Museum in a still larger envelope which I placed in the program of the Royal Danish Ballet, in the form of an advertisement for museums, boric acid, wallpaper. I put the program of the Royal Danish Ballet into the North Sea for two weeks. Then, I retrieved it, it was hanging down in thick strips, I sent it to a machine-vask on H.C. Andersens Boulevard, everything came out square and neat, I was overjoyed. I put the square, neat package in a safe place, and put the safe place in a vault designed by Capsar David Friedrich, German romantic landscape painter of the last century. I slipped the vault into a history of art (Insel Verlag, Frankfurt, 1975). But, in a convent library on the side of a hill near a principal city of Montana, it fell out of the history of art into a wastebasket, a thing I could not have predicted. I bound the wastebasket in stone, with a matchwood shroud covering the stone, and placed it in the care of Charles the Good, Charles the Bold, and Charles the Fair. They stand juggling cork balls before the many-times-encased envelope, whispering names which are not the right one. I put the three kings into a new blue suit; it walked away from me very confidently.

Donald Barthelme (1931-1989). One of the greatest short story writers of all time, Barthelme perfected the use of the ironic non-sequitur in philosophical tales of modern life. He often wrote about "sets" rather than "individuals" and his blending of absurdism, melancholia and erudite whimsy created a unique style of fiction that many have attempted to imitate since. The majority of his work is in print and his uncollected pieces have finally been collected. The Teachings of Don B.: Satires, Parodies, Fables, Illustrated Stories and Plays is now available.